She was sitting far at the back of the dark maqha, taking her slow turn with a shisha when she saw him standing in the doorway, the bright sunlight behind him emphasizing how tall and black and regal he was. He wore a tunic of purple silk trimmed in elaborately embroidered gold threads over voluminous white silk pajamas, his head wrapped in a swath of white silk.
He was wealthy, that one.
Smitty murmured, “Talaat Khersis. The Moneylender o’ Marrakech.”
Her head snapped right. “A Jew?” Smitty nodded. “Ethiopian, then, I’d assume.”
“He’s a long way from home.” The man’s eyes found hers, and she breathed, “I want him.”
Smitty snorted. “He’s worthless as a man.”
Celia scowled at her fellow officer. “Even geldings know how the act is accomplished.”
“Yet nothing to accomplish it with.”
She snorted. “You know nothing of women, Smitty. We have ways. Eunuchs are not ignorant of those ways, either. ’Tis only to be seen if he prefers women.”
“He does, in fact. You have been with a eunuch before?”
“Nay, but I have heard things. And he is … commanding. Powerful.”
He smirked. “Aye, I know your tastes. But what makes you think—”
She and Smitty looked up as one to see the ebony god standing over their low table, his gaze totally riveted on Celia. The corner of her mouth curled up and she patted the pillow next to her. He immediately skirted the low table, crossed his legs, and gracefully sank to the floor. He flashed her a sly smile when she made sure that her thigh rubbed along his, but refused the pipe when she offered.
“Talaat Khersis,” Smitty muttered after a draw. “Calico Jack, Carnivale ship’s master.”
“Calico Jack?” he drawled in a rich bass, staring at her speculatively. “Isn’t he—”
“Celia,” she murmured, then continued in French, the lingua franca of the Barbary Coast. “My name is Celia. I prefer that when in the company of a gentleman.”
“How do you know I am gentle, Mademoiselle?”
“How do you know I am unmarried, Monsieur?”
His face flashed white with a wide grin. Khersis was not, Celia noted absently, terribly attractive. But she was ever drawn to a man with a commanding air, one who clearly knew what he wanted and meant to get it.
“Talaat, if you please, Celia.” Without ever breaking Celia’s gaze, he said, “Thank you for the introduction, Mr. Smith. You may leave us now.”
Smitty harrumphed, but did as he was bid, most likely to find his own piece of flesh for the afternoon. He pulled the gauzy curtain closed behind him.
Khersis leaned toward Celia and she met him halfway, their mouths touching, pressing, sinking together until their tongues met and Celia’s eyes closed.
He tasted of cinnamon and figs.
A large, warm hand slid along her face and fingers furrowed through her hair.
“You are not a shy one,” he whispered as he drew away only enough to nibble on her lips with his. “And you waste no time.”
“I run a ship’s operations,” she breathed. “I cannot afford to be shy or inefficient.”
He shifted slightly and brushed his mouth along her cheek to her jaw. She sighed and tilted her head to give him better access. “You sail with Skirrow.”
“Oui, though not for long. I am here to find a different berth.”
“And if you cannot?”
“I shall sail with him until I am forced to kill him.”
She felt him smile against her jaw. “I believe you are half serious.”
He drew away from her and they studied at each other for a moment. “‘As soon as I had seen her, I was lost. For Beauty’s wound is sharper than any weapon’s, and it runs through the eyes down to the soul. It is through the eye that love’s wound passes, and I now became a prey to a host of emotions … ’”
Celia’s breath hitched. “Clitophon,” she whispered.
“How can I fail to love a woman who knows an obscure Greek work?”
“I would look forward to your brand of love, Talaat.”
His eyebrow rose. “Even though you know nothing of me?”
“I doubt you are the type of man who would start a battle he could not then finish.”
He threw back his head and laughed, a deep, rich laugh that momentarily stilled the chatter in the maqha. “You have great faith in my abilities, Mademoiselle. Too much, in fact.”
“Celia,” she whispered, leaning toward him until their noses and foreheads met. She touched his thigh, covered in loose white silk trousers and slid her hand up until it was covered by the purple silk. All the while, he simply watched her, half amused, half curious.
As she expected, his sac was empty of stones, but his prick, flaccid though it was, was intact, and she stroked him through his trousers.
His nostrils flared, and she smiled slowly. “You have feeling at least.”
“Ah, you knew.”
He chuckled wryly and shook his head. “Smith has a big mouth.”
“Touch me,” she whispered, tugging on the ties of her shirt and opening it to reveal the depth of her cleavage.
He did and she looked down. Seeing that dark hand against her pale scar-riven skin was an aphrodisiac like none she had experienced. His fingers stroked her scars, then he shifted until his mouth was at her collarbone, his tongue paying homage to her deformities.
“I should like to continue this in privacy, Monsieur Talaat,” she whispered, her hand wrapped around the back of his head.
“Oui,” he murmured, kissing his way up the short column of her throat to her jaw. “I too prefer to worship in private.”
After a bit of negotiation to set themselves to rights, he escorted her out of the maqha and handed her into a litter borne by six servants. “My home is but a few turns from here.”
The homes in this area of the city were rich, indeed.
“How long are you in port?”
Her eyebrow arched. “I am the ship’s master and navigator. We sail on my word. I misread Mother Nature’s nature when it suits me to do so.”
Yet again he laughed. “You reveal yourself more clever with each word you speak.”
She relaxed back against his soft body, cradled between his long legs, her face turned to feel his silk-covered body against her cheek while his hands cupped, sometimes lightly kneaded, her breasts.
Neither of them spoke until he had drawn her into his home of white marble, ivory tusk, and ebony and mahogany woods, then silently gave her over to a gaggle of female servants who took her to the harem—
—which was empty.
She stopped cold and looked around.
“He has no women?”
The servants would not answer, would not raise their eyes, would not stand straight in her presence.
The atrium, though well tended and beautiful, was silent and had not been used in years.
She began to smile, especially when they led her to a table crowded with foods sweet and savory.
Once she had eaten and drunk her fill, the women directed her to another room. There was no reaction to the sight of her scars when they divested her of her plain trousers and shirt, and led her to the bathing pool. Her hair was washed. Her body was massaged and oiled. All the hair on her body was removed.
She made no protest. She had plied the Mediterranean with Dunham since she was eight years old, and was no stranger to the customs of the various peoples of North Africa and Arabia. For her fifteenth birthday, Rafael himself had taken her to an Arabian enclave in Lisbon and introduced her to the richness of being personally tended. Likewise, he had taken her on her seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth birthdays. She was not fond of the Europeans’ refusal to bathe often.
The women’s ministrations changed as they silently bade her to dress, and she did so as was proper, as a concubine—
Her mouth dropped open when they stayed her hand and re-dressed her.
“Lud,” she breathed as she stared at the clothes they put upon her person. She did not know this man, and though she was willing to while away a succession of nights in his bed, she was now not certain what he expected of her.
By the time she was taken to his chambers, the sun had just set, leaving the sky a muted, beautiful orange fading into yellow fading into purple. He stood at a side table, dressed only in his pajamas, pouring wine into jewel-encrusted silver goblets. Gold hoop earrings hung from his earlobes below his bald head.
“Why am I dressed this way?” she demanded of him. “I am not your wife, nor do I intend to become so.”
“It is a gesture of respect,” he answered without hesitation. “No more, no less. You are familiar with our customs.”
With a goblet-filled hand, he gestured toward his pillow-strewn sleeping dais. “Please.” She eyed him suspiciously, but could not help but notice his body, which was as soft as she had suspected. He was a eunuch, and he had the body of one.
“You love women but your harem is empty.”
His mouth quirked. “Pleasuring women eventually becomes a bit exhausting and I have not met a woman who intrigued me enough to expend that much effort on an ongoing basis.”
That made her laugh. “Ah, so a sailor is perfect. In, out.”
And he laughed with her. “A sailor with hair the color of a Sahara sunrise and eyes like honey and a mouth made for pleasuring me … Yes. Perfect.”
Her smile faded and she tilted her head. “Do you mean to say a woman has not taken you in her mouth?”
Talaat’s focus shifted until he was looking through her to some point in his past. “Briefly, but they grow impatient with my inability to … grow.”
Celia sighed and went to him, dropping to her knees, pulling at his pajama ties, sliding her hands over the smooth, warm skin of his hips to his thick buttocks, slipping the cloth away from him.
Then stared at his ebony prick. Blinked.
“I’m a Jew,” he said caustically, apparently misunderstanding her hesitation. “I’m cut.”
And beautiful. She dipped her head and took him in her mouth.
He sucked in a breath and released it on a low moan. The silver goblets crashed to the floor, spilling wine everywhere, dropped so that he could run his hands through her loose hair. “Celia,” he whispered.
She looked up to see that he had dropped his head back and his chest was heaving. It was enough to make tears sting her eyes.
He wanted a skilled and willing woman who also wanted him.
He remained flaccid in her hand, her mouth, but she pulled at him and licked that beautiful bare head. She cupped his empty sac in her hand and kneaded him gently. She knew she’d done well when his breath hitched and he pressed her closer to him. She stayed that way for a while, paying homage to his pain the way she wished a man would pay homage to hers.
Twice he attempted to draw her to her feet, saying some nonsense about her turn, but she ignored him and shook him off to continue suckling.
Then, moving on, she drew a fingertip from the back of his sac, along the crease between his legs to his buttocks, dragging her thumb behind and lightly massaging that meager space.
“Celia, don’t,” he warned.
But she did, slipping a finger inside him and finding that spot—
“Mon Dieu!” he cried, and his hips bucked against her mouth, once, twice. She pulled away quickly so that he would not catch his still flaccid and utterly dry prick upon her teeth while he thrust. “Dieu,” he whispered over and over again, “Dieu,” petting her hair and attempting to catch his breath.
She leaned against his strong body, her cheek in contact with his belly, and lazily licked at him, that dark, beautiful instrument someone had been so cruel as to destroy.
“Rise, ma cœur,” he whispered, finally unwilling to allow her to remain on her knees. “Come let me worship you.”
She did obey him at last, taking his hand to be drawn up his body so he could wrap her up in his strength and kiss her until she could taste his pain and joy on her tongue.
He was weeping.
Celia attempted to deepen the kiss, but he was too tall— He lifted her and she clung to him while they kissed as if they could exchange souls.
“Merci,” he whispered finally, though his tears had not abated, and his face glistened with moisture.
He carried her to his dais and laid her gently down. Some time during the last— She looked out to the darkness and spotted the stars. —half hour while she had Talaat in her mouth, someone had entered the room to light oil lamps and braziers.
She found that oddly inconsequential.
Talaat turned and walked across the chamber to the sideboard where he poured them two more goblets of wine. She watched his rounded body move, the thickened waist and hips, admiring it for what it was, what it must have endured, and wondered—
“How old were you?”
“Twenty-eight,” he replied immediately.
“So you remember what it was like with a woman.”
“Oui. And what it was to look like a man.”
“I have forty-one winters. You?”
“Mon Dieu. I could have fathered you.” He returned with the wine and sank to the pillows. “I should be setting about seducing you, but I fear I am rather befuddled at the moment.”
She took the goblet and sipped. “I would have thought … ” She gestured toward his room, toward the outdoors, toward the harem. “ … a rich man in this city would have known how to get his needs met.”
“Ah, well, I have never been one to attempt to instruct and after I was castrated, my experience with women has been perfunctory at best, and usually only gained with the sight of a bit of coin. I have no wish to fund a household of women who cannot bear to look upon me, much less touch me.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Did you think I was a whore?”
“Non. I knew who you were.”
“Oh, dear God. Smitty.”
He smiled into his cup before he took a swallow. “Oui et non. Everyone in Casa Blanca knows of you by sight and position, if not by name; after all, a woman sailing as a ship’s master is not insignificant. A white woman with a long pink braid, unveiled and dressed in sailor’s garb and armed to the teeth is gossip-worthy. One who can sail with Skirrow unmolested is extraordinary. The second I saw you, I knew I had to meet you. Dooley is a good friend and he has known of my fascination with you. I did not believe him when he said you would find me pleasing, so I was shocked by the way you looked at me, and even more shocked when you returned my kiss.”
“I am, apparently, far too predictable,” she grumbled.
Talaat laughed. “That, my love, is the last thing you are. You are so young. How did you know how to please me? I didn’t even know that.”
“I’m a sailor,” she purred.
“One in every port?”
Celia looked down into her goblet. “Non,” she said solemnly. “Pleasuring myself is more efficient than either seeking new lovers to my taste or suffering through bad decisions. And I do not relish the idea of my face bearing the signs of the pox. Non,” she repeated. “I learned that particular skill—and many others—during the five years I spent in Rafael Covarrubias’s bed.”
He gaped at her, and then began to laugh. He dropped into the pillows on his back and continued to laugh.
“While I am gratified to see you laugh so easily, Monsieur, you would tell me why that is so amusing.”
“You are the girl who had Covarrubias wrapped around her finger for so long!”
“I thought it was the other way ’round,” Celia grumbled.
“Ah, no wonder you know your classics. Educated at university, and no less than Professor Covarrubias’s star pupil—the girl who can calculate the stars almost as well as he!” He roared with laughter, and Celia couldn’t help but smile, but that turned into a yawn.
Talaat stirred immediately and began the process of making Celia comfortable for sleep. “Did you drug my wine?” she asked sleepily.
“Non! I would never do such a thing. Consider the possibility that you are fatigued.”
She sighed and muttered, “Aye, there is that.”
• • •
She gasped and arched her back with the orgasm that was approaching. “Oh, God, Talaat!”
A muted chuckle tickled her ears, and suddenly she realized that not only was she no longer dreaming, but that when she was, she had been dreaming of the man who was, at the moment, sucking on her button.
Her quim clenched, but she knew there would be nothing to fill it unless—
“Oh,” she moaned when a warm, hard object slid inside her and then out again. She tightened her legs around Talaat’s head, but he wedged himself higher to force them wide. “Talaat,” she whimpered.
She felt his big hand on her belly and press down while his other slipped the dildo in, then out with a precise rhythm that created in her an orgasm nothing like she’d ever known or could duplicate on her own. It was as if she were climaxing from two different places simultaneously.
Talaat was stronger than he looked and kept her where he wanted her to receive the greatest pleasure he could give her.
Yet perhaps not.
He traced another warm, well-oiled object from her quim down to slip it in her back passage, and she wailed at how exquisite that was.
“You have done this,” he murmured against her belly as he gently worked both dildos in an alternating rhythm.
“Oh, aye,” she sighed, reaching for the next orgasm that teased her.
“With a man or with men?”
“Men,” she choked out, really too bedazzled to speak, much less think. “Two.”
“You like it.”
“Oh, aye,” she groaned again.
Again he shifted to pull on her button with his lips and tongue.
She choked and cried, biting her knuckle to keep herself from coming completely apart.
Then she did and began to sob because she had no other way to release the coarse, beautiful tension he had created in her. She continued to weep even after she had caught her breath and curled in on herself, rolling to her side.
Talaat retreated, then she heard him speaking to a servant low enough that she could not discern his words. Water splashed, then he joined her, smelling once again of cinnamon.
“Here,” he murmured, pressing a fig to her lips, which she took and chewed with gratitude. “How can I help you?”
“Hold me,” she hiccuped.
He lay down and pulled her into his arms. She clung to him. “Why do you weep?” he asked softly. “I thought— tried—”
“It was beautiful, Talaat,” she whispered harshly. “I have never— I didn’t know. Not even Rafael— Merci. Oh, merci beaucoup!”
She felt him smile against her forehead. “You’re quite welcome. Now. Let us speak of your breasts.”
“What of them?”
“You did not respond when I suckled you, and I did so for a long while, to wake you.”
“Nay. They have no feeling.”
“You must have sinned greatly.”
“I did. I shall tell you when I have some measure of strength.”
He said nothing, and her eyes drifted closed.
“I would have you stay with me for a time,” he whispered, caressing her hair and tucking it behind her ear. “I would know you.”
“Oui,” she sighed once again. “And I you.”
“I believe you would be an easy woman for me to love.”
That made her laugh. “No one I know would agree with you.”
“But they are not me.”
She opened her eyes. “Have you loved?”
“Oui. Twice. My first wife died, along with the child she was attempting to birth. My second … Well, after my captivity, she could not abide half a man whose shape turned somewhat womanly, and she wished to go back to her brother’s village. I allowed it.”
“You are yet married?”
“Non,” he said, and tucked a finger under her chin. She opened her eyes after a moment of silence. “She left to return to her family as I could no longer sire. Her brother stoned her.”
Celia gasped. “Why?!”
“She did not bring enough of my riches to him. She underestimated the extent of his greed. I had hoped to marry again someday, a woman who would know of my defect from the beginning, and understand. I had not dared hope for one who would find a way to make me feel whole again.”
She bit her lip because she felt something different from Talaat than she did for Rafael, and wondered at it. It was deeper, richer, and suddenly, her fantasies of marrying Rafael did not seem worth tending.
“I am white,” she whispered. “And Catholic, should I happen to think of it. What of your synagogue?”
“My status as eunuch makes me somewhat of an outcast. I have not been to worship properly in years, though I observe our customs.”
“I would bring you shame in other ways.”
He chuckled and pointedly glanced around at his chambers. “We can abide in our own humble ghetto.”
Celia’s mouth tilted up on one side. “I shall think on the matter.”
“You are not wholly opposed.”
She gulped. This was rash, reckless, and she did not often act so recklessly. However, he had dressed her as befit a wife.